Where will they go?
By James Buck

Noah is facing the loss of his home and workshop at an encampment in Burlington, Vermont, that the city plans to clear out. He asked that only his first name be published out of fear for his security.

Noah says his parents dropped him off at a youth shelter on his 18th birthday. He lived on the streets for two years, but rebuilt his life, spending a decade as a successful carpenter. 

“I was a normal member of  society up until about two months ago,”  says Noah, who didn’t want his last name published because of concerns for his safety.  When his son’s mom left him, he  stopped paying his bills and “came out here” to the homeless encampment at Sears Lane in Burlington, Vermont.
Noah built a home and a workshop for himself at the encampment. He’s a skilled maker, a creative genius who salvages tools and building materials from dumpsters to build sheds and  trailers and to rebuild and sell cars. 

He’s made a life for himself and he’s expecting a child with his girlfriend. But the city,  traditionally a progressive haven, has set a deadline to kick out the residents of the encampment in just a few days.

The encampment is a hot political issue. Local media crews with cameras show up when there is a disturbance,  arrest or a  move by the city to push people out. Noah and others who live there day in and day out feel strange, violated to have their homes constantly scrutinized in this way by strangers. 

“It’s bittersweet leaving here, but it's hard being here," Noah says.

Noah works hard for a living, but people come through the encampment and steal his tools and materials all the time, he says. He’s frantically working to build storage space to pack up his entire life and workshop, as  the city deadline looms and the threat of violence and escalation is ever-present.

 The stress level is immense. Noah is working day and night with a broken hand trying to get ready to move. 

"I'm fucked," he says, despairing about how he will move his workshop and where he will go.

Noah built a home and workshop for himself at the encampment. He salvaged tools and building materials from dumpsters and he builds sheds and trailers and works on cars. He uses scrap materials and sells what he builds. But the city ó traditionally a progressive haven ó set a deadline to kick out encampment residents on Oct. 26, 2021.

Noah broke his hand while working on one of his projects, but he doesn't have time to get the bones set. Because of the tight deadline to move out, he works night and day to move his belongings somewhere else - although to where, he does not know. The pain in his hand is intense. His bandage has become dirty and gas-soaked, and he can't use it anymore, so he works with his bare broken hand.

Noah makes his living using materials that other people have thrown out, rebuilding cars, repurposing scrap metal and building projects. But to get the free resources he needs ómaterials that are literally trash to other people ó he faces the threat of arrest every night. He stays up late and scopes out dumpsters where he can find usable materials, but he has to be careful not to be caught. Sometimes, he says, the owners set deterrents for him, like covering the materials in urine, to make it harder for him.

"I'm in a bind and I stopped caring. But I don't live like this normally," Noah says. Life at the camp is a constant grind with so many difficult people coming through all the time and so many confrontations with residents, city employees and police. "This place makes it so easy to just stop caring, all these idiots. When you do care, it drives you nuts. ... This place, I'm angry all the time."

Local activist groups in Vermont try to come to the residents' aid. Mutual aid groups bring food and other supplies, which can be a great help, but they often don't ask the residents what they need. Sometimes it feels like people are just coming through all the time, people they don't know, says Noah. It's stressful. But tonight is taco night, which is a great delight.

"It's bittersweet leaving here, but it's hard being here. ... There are no boundaries here. I feel like I'm losing my mind all the time, losing things, people taking things," Noah says. He works hard for a living, but people come through the encampment and steal his tools and materials. "That's what this place'll do to you long term, make you paranoid." He drives his truck to get to the dumpsters in the middle of the night, hoping no one will steal his stuff while he's gone.

"Leo saved my life," Noah says. His 90-pound dog is a happy goofball who brings calm and levity to everyone in the camp. Leo loves to pull up saplings and giant branches like sticks and play tug-of-war with Noah.

His new girlfriend just found out she's pregnant. "I don't want another broken family," Noah says, adding jokingly, "but maybe this time she'll be dumb enough to stay with me." The companionship is wonderful and they have a close bond, but Noah also worries about her future and is very protective of her. "I don't want this life for myself, and I don't want it for her."

Local media swoop in when there is a conflict or action by the city to move out residents. It's like living in a fishbowl, a neighborhood that's constantly under scrutiny with people coming in to photograph only the most challenging moments of difficult lives. For Noah, the pressure of trying to build a family and make a living while being hunted by the city under a tight deadline to move his vast workspace is enormous.